what is it?
No matter what part of the steer it comes froml, beef is made up of muscle, connective tissue, and fat. Most of what you see is the soft, dense muscle. Cuts with large amounts of connective tissue tend to be tougher. Fat can appear in thick layers over muscles and also as fine marbling between muscle fibers. When finely marbled fat melts during cooking, it enhances tenderness and adds succulence.
how to choose:
Sorting out Beef Labels: Here's what some of the most common terms mean:
- Grass-fed - All cattle eat a natural diet of grass at the beginning of their lives. The question is whether the animal was switched to grain to fatten up before slaughter, or whether it continued to eat grass and hay throughout its life. From a health standpoint, exclusively grass-fed beef has more nutrients and less saturated fat, lower rates of the dangerous E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, and no risk of mad cow disease. From a flavor perspective, it's leaner than conventional beef, and it's less forgiving if overcooked; aim for rare or medium rare. Look for terms like "100% grass-fed" or "grass-finished" or for another third-party verifier, such as the American Grassfed Association (whose standards are stricter than those of the USDA).
- Organic - Beef that carries the USDA organic logo has met the department's standards, which prohibit the use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified feed, and animal byproducts, among other things. The standards do not require a grass-only diet; the animal may be fed organic grain.
- Free-range or free-roaming - These terms have no legal definition when applied to beef (though they do for poultry). While they suggest, at minimum, that the animal had access to the outdoors, there are no standards that producers need to follow.
- Raised without antibiotics - This implies just what it says: that antibiotics were not given to the cows. The producer must submit documentation supporting the claim, but unless otherwise noted, it isn't independently verified.
- No hormones administered - This suggests that the animal received no growth-stimulating hormones. The producer must submit documentation supporting the claim, but unless otherwise noted, it isn't third-party verified.
- Natural - As defined by the USDA, "natural" or "all-natural" beef has been minimally processed and contains no preservatives or artificial ingredients. Since virtually all fresh beef conforms to these standards, the term has no real significance.
- Naturally raised - The USDA is working on a new standard for naturally raised beef that would prohibit the use of hormones, antibiotics, and animal byproducts but might not address other production concerns, such as animal welfare, diet, or access to pasture. Once the final standard is released, you may start to see this term accompanied by the USDA "process verified" shield. However, the program will be voluntary, so producers may use the term even without verification.
how to prep:
The trick to getting good results when cooking beef is deciding at the outset what sort of treatment the meat needs.
Tender cuts with little connective tissue can take high, dry heat. Steaks and other small, tender cuts take well to grilling and pan searing. Larger cuts like prime rib are good candidates for roasting.
Tougher cuts with lots of connective tissue do best with gentle, moist heat and lots of time, during which the connective tissue breaks down into gelatin, giving the dish a silky texture. Long-cooking stews and braises are ideal for cuts like beef brisket and short ribs.